Therapy dog program kicks off at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith


FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — A new therapy dog program aims to bring some comfort and joy inside the walls of Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith.

Every Wednesday, Baxter, a 10-month-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, visits the hospital with his owner, Robert Mercer, to spend two hours taking pets from staff, patients, and their families.

Baxter is so far the only member of Mercy Fort Smith’s Therapy Dog team.

Mercer’s wife, Cathy, is a nurse practitioner at the hospital, and she, along with Dr. Pamela Gabroni, had long discussed having a therapy dog come into hospice and palliative care departments.

Baxter has so far visited those departments along with others, such as infusion and ultrasound, since the program started just a few weeks ago.

He remains leashed at all times during his visits, and he rides in his own custom cart, which keeps him from getting too tired and at an optimum petting level for visitors.

“I think he brings a little of the outside world in, and I think that’s nice,” Mercer said. “Everybody else is disease-focused, from the doctors to the nurses to the families. Baxter could care less. He just wants to lick your face. It’s kind of nice to see that.” 

The hospital is now hoping to expand the program and add more dogs and handlers.

The program is open to any dog whose owner is willing to become a Mercy volunteer and accompany the dog on visits in the hospital.

Mercer said calm, controllable dogs would make a good fit to serve as therapy dogs. He would assist in getting the dog trained and certified, while volunteer manager Jenni Powell would work with the dog’s caretaker on the volunteer side.

The Alliance of National Therapy Dogs vouches for the dog following the certification process. 

“The dog and handlers are one team,” Mercer said. “It’s always a human-dog team. In a sense, he’s not a therapy dog, and I’m not a therapy dog handler. Baxter and I are a therapy dog-handler team.” 

Mercer says your dog doesn’t need to be a perfect show dog or have perfect obedience, but they should be receptive to strangers and not prone to nipping or barking, and they should be non-reactive to other dogs.

The goals of the program include:

  • Improve patients’ quality of stay. 
  • Improve mood and emotional well-being. 
  • Increase interactions and dialogue. 
  • Provide comfort and joy. 
  • Reduce anxiety and loneliness. 
  • Increase overall patient satisfaction. 
  • Provide stress relief and a more humanized work environment for hospital staff, visitors and families. 

Powell said Baxter brightens the day of Mercy employees.

“It really is a huge deal to them, to be honest,” she said. “We bring Baxter by and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!” 

Mercer said he would like to expand his therapy dog days, perhaps from one day a week to two. National service dog organizations recommend just two hours a day for therapy dogs, he said.

If you’re interested in applying for the program, email Powell at, or click here to learn more about volunteering at Mercy. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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